Chip Scoggins
See more of the story

Joel Maturi freely admits that Jessica Allister wasn’t his first choice when he went to hire a Gophers softball coach in 2010. Or his second choice. Or third.

The former Gophers athletic director thinks a fourth candidate also might have turned him down, but he can’t remember for sure. He eventually decided to give the job to Allister.

“They got stuck with the 27-year-old,” Allister joked this week.

Maturi is honest about that, too. Allister’s age at the time concerned him. He liked her focus and determination and her eagerness to take on the challenge of fixing a broken program.

But she was young and that gave him pause.

“That was probably wrong of me,” Maturi said, looking back. “We liked everything about her. We were just a little hesitant because of her age. But I said, ‘I want somebody who wants this job.’ ”

Maturi knew from experience not to let a coach’s age act as a roadblock. As athletic director at Miami (Ohio), he hired a 27-year-old assistant from another program to coach his men’s hockey team. Maturi made Enrico Blasi the youngest head coach in Division I hockey at the time.

Blasi rewarded that faith by turning Miami’s program into a national contender. He was Maturi’s fourth choice.

Maturi shared that story with his top senior administrator with the Gophers when debating whether to hire Allister, an Oregon assistant at the time.

“I said, ‘You know, it worked once, maybe it can work again,’ ” Maturi recalled. “Obviously it did.”

Allister proved that sometimes the fifth choice is the right choice, as evident by the transformation of Gophers softball under her leadership.

The Gophers will make their fifth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance under Allister on Friday, this time as the No. 1-ranked team nationally.

The kerfuffle over their seeding snub this week unintentionally accomplished one of Allister’s primary objectives in building her program: make people pay attention and care about Gophers softball.

The season before her arrival, the Gophers won two Big Ten games and had a program record 15-game losing streak.

The before-after picture is striking, but Allister has a confession: In hindsight, she wasn’t ready for the job.

“Until you’re a head coach you don’t know anything,” she said. “I knew a lot about softball. I knew how to structure practices. I knew how to get the team better. I didn’t know anything about anything else.”

Well, she knew that attitudes needed to change. Not just her players, but within the entire athletic department. Losing often becomes a habit, and that mentality had taken root in her program. Too many people were focused on why the team can’t win.

“It was viewed as a struggling sport that had the odds stacked up against it because we’re in the Upper Midwest,” Allister said. “There were all these reasons that we shouldn’t be successful. That doesn’t sit well with me. We had to convince people that it was OK to believe that we could matter and should matter.”

As the product on the field improved, Allister fought for her program internally by demanding more resources from administrators.

Allister didn’t ask for the moon. But she pushed for facilities upgrades, better scheduling, more money for recruiting and marketing — things that demonstrated the department took softball seriously.

“It was just getting people to understand that we should expect more,” she said. “If we’re going to demand that the student-athletes be excellent, then we needed to demand that everyone around them be excellent, too. I had to knock on a lot of doors. But that’s my job. My job is to fight for the student-athletes.”

Seasons like this one justify that vision. The Gophers posted the best record in Division I softball at 54-3. They won their first Big Ten regular-season title since 1991 and set home attendance records.

Any explanation for their success should start at the beginning, seven years ago, when the athletic director grew tired of being turned down and gave the job to a 27-year-old.

“Opportunities sometimes come in funny ways,” Allister said. “You can’t script them.”

Chip Scoggins • chip.scoggins@startribune.com